Escaping North Korea: Harrowing tales of survival, strength

Christine: “North Korea is like Egypt before the Exodus – fleas, hail, pestilence, death. But I believe that God wants His people released. Like Pharoah, Kim Jong Un will let His people go.”

 Illustrative image of a barbed wire fence. (photo credit: PATRICK HENDRY/UNSPLASH)
Illustrative image of a barbed wire fence.

South Korea – Images of bodies crawling with maggots still haunt Christine at night.

“So often, smoke would cease rising from a neighbor’s chimney. We would open the door and find an entire family dead,” Christine recalls as she describes her teenage years in North Korea in the 1990s.

“People would be lying on the side of the street – dead or almost dead.

“There were so many of them that the ‘people collectors’ would just collect the bodies and dump them into mass graves without any funeral or anything,” she continues. “Sometimes there were too many to collect them. So, they would lie on the street rotting and infested with maggots.”

One of the nearly 35,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, Christine, who fears using her real name, is trying to create a new life on the other side of the Han River.

 North Korean defectors draw their experience in concentration camps before leaving the country. The common theme is that these individuals were tortured and treated like animals. (Drawing courtesy of Prof. Yong Hui Lee with permission) (credit: Courtesy Prof. Yong Hui Lee)
North Korean defectors draw their experience in concentration camps before leaving the country. The common theme is that these individuals were tortured and treated like animals. (Drawing courtesy of Prof. Yong Hui Lee with permission) (credit: Courtesy Prof. Yong Hui Lee)

Petite with big dark eyes and shoulder-length hair, Christine spoke to The Jerusalem Report on a drive to the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea, in early July.

The border trip was organized by the Songdo Jusarang Evangelical Church to highlight the plight of the defectors in advance of a conference it is organizing in August to pray for the reunification of the Korean peninsula that will involve a delegation from Israel.

Upon arrival at the hilltop lookout, Christine can see the Han River and miles of barbed wire. She can imagine her family only four kilometers but a life away. Her mother and two siblings are trapped in North Korea and she has not seen them in over 15 years. She cannot communicate with them freely for fear of death.

Christine was born in a northern city in North Korea. Her father worked in a chemical weapons factory. He was transferred to Russia when she was 10, leaving her mother with five children. The family then moved in with Christine’s grandfather, who ran a communications business in the country. But when he was accused of practicing Christianity, the family was forced to relocate to the mountains, where they survived on nothing but tree bark and grass soup.

Determined to help her family, in 1998 Christine made a run to China, where although purchased by a sex trafficker, she could survive and send back funds to her family. However, in 2004, she was tricked by a broker who sold her to the police and had her sent back to North Korea and detained in a prison camp.

“They treated us like animals,” Christine remembers. “The food they gave us was rotten. You could smell the stink.”

She became ill with diarrhea until she passed out from dehydration and was left in her prison cell for dead. When she surprisingly regained consciousness, the guards were angry. They yelled and cursed at her and warned her she should have died.

“I hardened my heart to North Korea that day,” Christine says. “When you live in North Korea, you are taught that Jong Un Kim is our God, and he will take care of us. So even though I [made a run] for China to avoid starvation, I always thought longingly of my country. But that day, when the security guard wished me dead, I shut down my heart to North Korea. I decided I would no longer stay silent until the rest of the world knows about the country’s cruelty.”

Christine did not believe she would leave the prison alive. Lying in a cell the size of an average minivan with 33 people zigzagged across the floor, she waited for her passing.

“There was an old lady in the cell with me, a grandmother. Somehow, she looked so peaceful,” Christine explains. “I asked her for her secret. She told me about God.”

That night, Christine started to pray.

The next morning, she was picked for forced labor. For three days, she slaved at a construction site. One afternoon, the guard asked her about her family, and she told him of her siblings. In the evening, the guard called Christine from her cell. Her brother had paid him bribe money, and she was freed.

“I knew, however, that although I was released from prison, I could not live in North Korea. I bought two bottles of poison and escaped,” she says. “I had decided that if I failed, I would rather die than return to prison.

“I stood on the edge of the Duman River between China and North Korea, and I remembered that old lady’s praying, and I told God that if he got me across the river safely, I would devote the rest of my life to His will,” Christine continues. “And by miracle, I made it across.”

In October 2012, Christine escaped from China to South Korea, where she could begin again – this time as a devout Christian. She recently learned that her brother was picked up for assisting her and taken to a concentration camp, where he was tortured to death. Her father suffered a heart attack from the shock of his son’s death. Another brother is still detained. Christine’s mother and two other siblings are at large – but she cannot communicate with them, fearing for their lives.

“North Korea is like Egypt before the Exodus – fleas, hail, pestilence, death,” Christine says. “But I believe that God wants His people released. Like Pharoah, Kim Jong Un will let His people go.”

Zion Conference

An estimated 90% of the tens of thousands of individuals who escape from North Korea to China and then on to South Korea convert to Christianity, according to Yeonhee Shin, herself a defector and convert.

“It is the Christians who care for us, give us funding, and help us settle,” Shin says.

“But just because they become Christians does not mean they stay Christians. Sometimes, they struggle in South Korea and turn away from faith again.”

However, she says that a majority go on to study religion in seminaries in South Korea; some even become pastors and work at leading churches. South Korea is around 30% Christian – more than 15 million people.

Approximately half its citizens have no religious affiliation, and 20% are Buddhist. South Korea was founded in 1948. Before then (1910-1945) all of Korea was under Japanese occupation. At the end of World War II, Korea was divided, with the North occupied by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States. On August 15, 1948, South Korea declared independence. A month later, on September 9, North Korea declared independence under the rule of prime minister Sung Il Kim. Two years later, Kim declared war against South Korea, intending to take over the peninsula.

The Korean War lasted three years, ending on July 27, 1953, with “inconclusive results.” An amnesty line agreement was signed, and a demilitarized zone was established that has held up ever since.

Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea until he died in 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, replaced him and later he, in turn, was replaced by today’s hereditary dictator Kim Jong Un.

 From August 10 to 19, the Songdo Jusarang Evangelical Church will host the Zion Conference in front of City Hall. Thousands of Christians are expected to attend. The church is a pro-Israel house of worship. (credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN)
From August 10 to 19, the Songdo Jusarang Evangelical Church will host the Zion Conference in front of City Hall. Thousands of Christians are expected to attend. The church is a pro-Israel house of worship. (credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN)

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. In Judaism, 70 is considered a “jubilee year” – a year of freedom from enslavement, as it says in the Book of Leviticus. Therefore, several pro-Israel Protestant Korean churches have joined together to host a “Zion Conference,” August 10-19, to provide a gathering place for Christians in honor of the jubilee year, to pray for the reunification of the Korean peninsula. Thousands of people are expected to attend, including more than 100 Israelis who will be flown in from the Jewish State with funding from the Songdo Jusarang Evangelical Church and its pastor Sang Gil Jang.

“Korean Christians strongly believe that reunification can only be possible by the power of the Holy Spirit,” Jang says. “The biggest blessing for reunification will come when the Chosen People come to pray and intercede on our behalf. We need nations’ prayers to bring down this dictatorship at this historical time.

“North and South Koreans are the same blood, the same people, the same language – true families,” Jang continues. “When the North Korean dictatorship falls, everyone thinks we will be one country. While the United Nations divided Korea 70 years ago, nations united will bring North Korea and South Korea back together.”

The ‘hell’ of the 21st century

Israel and South Korea have deep, historic ties. Israel sent medical supplies and humanitarian aid to the South Koreans during the 1950-1953 war. But the connection between the two countries is much more than that, according to Israel’s Ambassador to South Korea, Akiva Tor.

Both countries were founded in 1948, he says. Both countries were established with a dearth of natural resources. Both countries became prosperous. Today, South Korea and Israel are both countries living under the threat of nuclear attack – by North Korea and Iran, respectively.

However, despite having diplomatic relations for six decades, no South Korean president has visited Israel. President Reuven Rivlin visited South Korea in 2019, and president Shimon Peres in 2010 before him. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Seoul in June, marking the first visit of a sitting foreign minister in nine years.

“Relations are not as close as we would like them to be,” Tor admits.

Bilateral trade between the countries rose by 35% in 2021 to around $3.5 billion following the signing of a Free Trade Agreement – Korea’s first FTA in the Middle East and Israel’s first in Asia. But Tor says the potential is as high as $10 billion.

The key to increasing ties, Tor believes, is the Christian community. Many of its members now hold positions in the National Assembly and serve as ministers. The churches are vast, including some with more than 100,000 members, and several of their leading pastors hold close ties with Tor specifically and Israel in general.

In June, representatives from Seoul and Jerusalem signed what they called the Seoul Manifesto at an inaugural Korea and Israel One Network conference.

KION is a faith-based organization founded by Korean Zionist Christians to recruit more than a million Koreans to defend Israel and fight against antisemitism in Korean churches and media. The declaration, signed by KION co-chair’s former Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, and former Korean prime minister, Kyo-Ahn Hwang, calls upon the countries to increase bilateral relations in politics, business, culture, media, religion, education, and humanitarian aid.

Since 2019, Jang and another seven partner churches have worked closely with the Jewish Agency and supported aliyah to Israel from France, Kazakhstan, India, Ethiopia, and most recently, Ukraine. In total, South Korean churches have funded more than 940 new immigrants to Israel, as well as relocation expenses. Sang Gil says he brings delegations of more than 50 people to the country each year.

At the same time, these Christians are supporting an underground church movement in North Korea, which has doubled in size in the last two decades to as many as 400,000 members.

“Even under the most severe persecution, the Gospel is spreading,” says Prof. Yong Hui Lee, a Korean economist who, for the past 17 years, has been fighting to raise awareness of the human rights crisis in North Korea. His Esther Prayer Movement gathers nightly to pray for the safety of North Koreans.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, North Korea ranks as the third least democratic country in the world. It ranks lowest – and most repressed – on the Economic Freedom of the World Index. On Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, North Korea ranked 171 out of 180, with its public sector perceived to be among the most corrupt.

The most recent Global Slavery Index found North Korea has the highest prevalence of modern slavery.

“This is the hell of the 21st century,” Lee says. He rescued flash drives of photos and videos from defectors to try to share their stories with the world.

Lee has been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and says North Korean concentrations camps are “comparable [to the Holocaust]. The footage from the concentration camps made by the North Korean defectors shows children being tortured by fire.... The concentration camps are so severe. They are the reason that [the] communist dictatorship survives. People are too afraid of such severe punishment.”

Defector Shin shares that North Koreans are treated like livestock. Not only do they not have freedom of speech, but they cannot think for themselves.

“I could not sleep when I wanted to sleep or study when I wanted to study,” Shin says.

“People do not understand the depth of the torture. But God knows, and He brought defectors like me out of the country to tell the story. My mouth and your article will reveal the secrets of what is happening in North Korea.”

Lee called on Jews in Israel to “shout for justice.” He says there is a Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv, and Israelis should be marching outside its front door, calling on the government not to send North Korean defectors back to be persecuted.

There are currently 2,300 North Korean defectors held in Chinese prisons who could be sent back to North Korea at any moment, Lee adds. China couldn’t send these defectors back during the COVID lockdown, however, now that the borders are open, they are expected to be deported at any time – to face death.

“We say the Holocaust should never happen again. Please cry out for the people of North Korea,” Lee says.

‘I have a dream’

Sung Ho Ji was born in April 1982 and raised during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. He and his family survived on corn husks and cabbage roots, he tells the Report. At harvest time, he and his siblings would dig up seeds the rats had stashed in their burrows.

“Sometimes, the rats would attack us. We would club them to death, giving us a real feast,” he says.

His grandmother died of starvation.

To survive, Ji would steal coal from the trains and try to exchange it for food in the markets. In March 1996, teenage Ji passed out from starvation and dehydration while jumping from car to car, falling between the gap and onto the tracks. When he woke up, he realized he had been run over by the train and was gushing blood.

“A piece of fragile flesh was holding my leg to the rest of my body,” he recalls. “Three fingers on my left hand had been sheared off.”

The doctors operated on him for four-and-a-half hours without anesthesia as they amputated his leg and hand. His screams echoed through the halls of the hospital. It took 10 months to nurse him back to health when the surgery was over. His father was his caregiver, securing penicillin from the black market to treat his son’s innumerable infections.

Eight years later, his mother and sister escaped to China. He and his brother followed two years later. When his father made a similar attempt, he was caught and beaten to death.

Ji swam across the Duman River into China, nearly drowning. He begged his brother to leave him for fear that his disability would cause them both to be apprehended. Together, however, they survived and walked 10,000 kilometers through China, Cambodia, and Myanmar to reach freedom in South Korea.

Today, Ji is a member of the National Assembly, and his story has become a symbol of how the desire for freedom could be so great as to survive the impossible.

“When I look back on my life, it was a miracle – the whole journey was a miracle,” he says.

He admits that he still has nightmares of his leg being amputated and of when he was captured and tortured in a concentration camp, despite his disability, when he tried to sneak over the Chinese border to get food.

Ji cannot visit China because he says, “I am target No. 1 of North Korea. We joke that I cannot go to China because if I drink the water in a Chinese hotel, I will wake up in North Korea.”

In South Korea, Ji was fitted for a prosthetic hand and leg, and he can now walk again without his crutches. In the assembly, he represents the voice of North Korea’s defectors and serves as an example for them of how one can escape, survive and even thrive.

“When I was in North Korea, I used to think I had the worst luck in the world,” he says. “But since I came to South Korea, I can breathe the freedom and see all the good things God is planning for me. I believe God gave me a bigger purpose in life.”

On Ji’s wall, he has a painting of a kotjebi, a homeless child scrounging for food. The image serves as a reminder of where he came from and his purpose in parliament.

“When defectors come [to South Korea] and have a good life, the North Korean government is further weakened,” Ji says. “That is important, as the ultimate goal is reunification.”

His role model is Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “I have a dream,” and then accomplished it.

“I have a dream, too,” Ji smiles.

“I wish my brothers and sisters from North Korea could have a human life, and I will not stop until that becomes a reality.” ■